Editorial: Time to remove NEON interim president, CEO

NORWALK, Conn. – Things keep going from bad to worse at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). The Norwalk-based social service agency is in serious debt and has missed payrolls, has lost its halfway house contracts with the state Department of Corrections and has had its Head Start contract suspended by the federal Department of Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

Documents from that agency, the state Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Office of the Inspector General, along with reports from former NEON Board of Directors members, reveal not only an agency in crisis, but an agency in denial.

Multiple audits have shown a long-standing lack of proper accounting for grants and other money and a lack of financial controls crucial to maintaining 501c3 status, as well as “inappropriate” hiring practices including nepotism and salary increases despite swimming in a sea of red ink.

While DSS and ACF, agencies that fund NEON’s projects, detail meetings and communications with NEON management as recently as mid-October in which the agency was warned it was not complying with their requirements for continued operations, NEON officials have reportedly downplayed the problems to their clients.

Eyewitness accounts of meetings and copies of NEON’s response to a DSS audit show an agency in denial as interim president and CEO Chiquita Stephenson has disputed nearly every finding and pointed the finger at former president and CEOs Joe Mann and Pat Wilson Pheanious, Mayor Richard Moccia and DSS itself for the agency’s problems.

Despite the meetings and written warnings, Stephenson portrayed Thursday’s Head Start suspension as sudden and rallied Head Start clients to her side, blaming the federal government for shutting down the program with no notice and leaving the families without Head Start. For many people whose children attend Head Start, that meant having to stay home from work and risk losing jobs.

Through it all, Stephenson has protested the government agency’s actions because they have endangered families, but her current refusal to meet with a company assigned by the feds to take over Head Start on an interim basis and to transfer the license smacks of a self-serving power play, using NEON’s client families as pawns.

Even current NEON Board of Directors member Jack O’Dea, who has been a big Stephenson supporter since her controversial six-month appointment to run the agency, expressed frustration Sunday and said he has “no idea” what’s going on.

NancyOnNorwalk feels it is time for NEON’s Board of Directors and its chairman, Stamford businessman Michael Berkoff, to step up and remove Stephenson as interim head of the agency and reach outside for a qualified executive to untangle the mess.

Also, until NEON gets a clean bill of health from its state and federal overseers, we agree with the mayor that not one penny of Norwalk’s taxpayer money should be given to the agency. We would, however, urge Moccia or Harry Rilling, whoever wins the Nov. 5 mayoral election, to have a plan to assist those Norwalk citizens in need who get left out in the cold by the machinations at 98 South Main St.


11 responses to “Editorial: Time to remove NEON interim president, CEO”

  1. M Allen

    I second all that. But it’s just a start. NEON needs to be reorganized, including what remains of its board. Clean house of anyone who was there before May 2013 and seize the records. That includes Jack “No Idea” O’Dea. The agency needs to be stabilized under new, interim leadership while a search is instituted for a new CEO capable of managing a organization of this size and scope.
    On a separate track, an investigation needs to be made using an entity with subpoeana powers. We have got to close this book once and for all. With all that has happened, Norwalkers deserve to know what if any laws have been broken. We can keep saying “mismanagement” all day long, but until we follow the money, we will never really know. Fix the here and now so the agency can get back to doing the business of those it serves, but let justice have its say here as well.

  2. Oldtimer

    Neon needs an effective, take charge, board and a competent bookkeeper/accountant. Ms Stephenson is in way over her head and needs to be replaced, preferably by a respected outside executive with power to hire and fire. Most of her team needs to be evaluated for their qualifications and the ones in place only because of connections with earlier, ineffective management should be asked to resign. Trimming some nonessential jobs would probably free up enough to pay a competent bookkeeper. Only the essential jobs should be retained. For the most part, the people who do the real work serving clients should probably be kept in place.
    As far as a follow the money investigation possibly leading to prosecutions, showing criminal intent, with management handing out undeserved raises, would be difficult, unless they discover some no-show jobs.

  3. M Allen

    As with any investigation, it all begins with a forensic audit. Where is goes from there will be based on the findings of the audit. I don’t know how one forces a forensice audit if the board and management are unwilling. Hence my recommendation for it to be forced through an entity with the power to make it happen. I’m not saying storm the doors with investigators wearing blue windbreakers with POLICE written across the back. As the city witnessed with its investogation into the 2nd Taxing District and South Norwalk Electric Works in the early 1980’s, you never know what you will find once the can has been opened to scrutiny. But scrutiny is required.

  4. Piberman

    Why did it take soooo long for NON to take a position on NEON ? Why not ask removal of the current rubber stamp Directors too ? Did NON support the hiring of Ms Stephanson as interim CEO ? What prevents NON from asking our State legislators what should be done ? Or Common Council members ? The big story here us that people in need served by NEON have been utterly ignored by community “leaders” and elected “officials”.
    That’s NEWS !

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ PiBerman

      Well, Peter, I guess it is just because we are incompetent, just like everyone else in Norwalk, save for yourself and the mayor. We apologize for taking soooo long to be the first and only news outlet to call for Ms. Stephenson’s ouster. We apologize for not being able to pin down certain state politicians yet. We apologize for not asking irrelevant questions of Common Council candidates who have no role in NEON’s activities. In fact, no one in the city has any role other than say yes or no to giving the agency money. The mayor said no, and, as we wrote, we agree.

      To answer your other question, no, we did not support Ms. Stephenson’s appointment, not for 18 months, not for six months, not permanently. But, unlike some people who have the luxury of sitting in the balcony, pontificating, and turning thumbs up or thumbs down on everyone’s actions, job performance, or the actions and opinions you ascribe to them based on your own uber-partisanship (possibly borne of your rejection by the Democrats in your failed 1995 mayoral bid), we attempt to report the news, layout the facts as they are presented (not as we believe or want to believe they are) and allow others to make their own judgments. We take the weight of our words seriously, and understand that we are dealing with people’s lives and reputations, personal and professional. Words have consequences.

      By the way, thank you for agreeing with our assertion about what the big story is. We did point that out, and addressed it again in the editorial today. Hopefully you read the entire thing before launching your attack.

  5. Mike Mushak

    M Allen, NEON aside, I am glad to see you calling for proper action taken towards an organization that has not followed by-laws, not provided financial statements as requested, and is being led by individuals with questionable professional credentials.
    Well, everything I just described was not just about NEON, but also applies to the Planning and Zoning Department on the second floor of City Hall. The GOP Zoning Commission leadership, including former Chair Emily Wilson running for Council in District E, and now Joe Santo as Chair yet again, have refused to enforce the by-laws and hold the staff accountable for their actions.
    Mr. Allen, as a citizen who is concerned about these issues at NEON that are also currently occurring in the P and Z Department, would you subsequently support a forensic (or operational) audit of the P and Z Department, and replacement of the GOP Commission members who have stubbornly refused to follow the law and hold the staff accountable? Do you think the professional credentials of the P and Z staff should be a secret from the public who pay their salaries, as Moccia and Maslan have claimed? Just curious if you would maintain the same standards for city departments under GOP leadership as you have for NEON.

  6. M Allen

    Mr. Mushak,I am in support of the rule of law and for using the proper methods for enforcing and/or amending the rule of law. I believe that you should pursue the proper remedy if you feel you and/or the City have been aggrieved. Since I have no understanding of how one would do this, I encourage you to file the proper motions, paperwork or whatever is required in order to lodge an official complaint. If any public official were proven to be in violation, I would be in support of the law taking its due course. But I guess someone would need to do more than just do more than forum lawyer this in the court of public opinion. They would need to take actual action rather than just talk about what is wrong and yet make no legitimate attempt at doing anything about it.

  7. anonymous

    What about the people who lost their jobs at the halfway houses. Its sad that they are now out of work because of all this mess. Some of them have children in the NEON daycare and now have to withdraw them and that puts them in an even more difficult situation……smh. Pray for them

  8. Loraine H.

    “Unlike some people who have the luxury of sitting in the balcony, pontificating, and turning thumbs up or thumbs down on everyone’s actions, job performance, or the actions and opinions you ascribe to them based on your own uber-partisanship (possibly borne of your rejection by the Democrats in your failed 1995 mayoral bid).” – “We take the weight of our words seriously, and understand that we are dealing with people’s lives and reputations, personal and professional. Words have consequences.” Powerful words, indeed. Zing. Or is it Zap?

  9. Hobbes the Calvinist

    To accuse Mr. Berman of “uber-partisanship” would be appropriate if only today’s Mr. Berman weren’t having a highly-charged partisan argument with the Peter Berman of June 2012. It was then that June 2012 Berman was showing the love to Fred Wilms and Steve Colarossi (http://www.thehour.com/opinion/letters/quickie-adoption-no-right/article_8546d07d-1c0e-5725-be40-2c5157f30ea6.html?_dc=534937035758.0483).
    If you want to know how deep the rift is between June 2012 Berman and today’s adaptation, you only need read that part of his school budget reform manifesto where he calls for members of the teachers and administrators’ union to be included in the budget process.
    My, how oh so sixteen months ago the June 2012 Peter Berman seems today.

  10. Piberman

    Sorry Mr Chapman but the real story with NEON occurred quite some time ago when our elected officials were anxious to remove Joe Mann. No one questioned why Council members serving as Directors were so asleep at the switch that they didn’t look at the books. The other real NEON story is that none of political leaders, especially Democrats with special affinity for the poor and underprivileged, have taken an interest. So why is the community so indifferent to NEON’s fate ? For a City that prides itself on ethnicity that’s really surprising. And worth discussing.

    (This comment has been edited to comply with our policy.)

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